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Report: Clayton property taxes out of line

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Despite the assessed values of homes in Clayton dropping by 7 percent from 2008 to 2009, home owners -- on average -- are still paying three times more than the average metro Atlanta property owner, according to a recent study done for the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Inc.,(ANDP).

The non-profit group, which promotes mixed-income communities, said inflated property assessments in Clayton and other metro counties are saddling many of the communities hardest hit by foreclosures with an unfair property tax burden.

The study, released on Thursday, was conducted by the independent real estate advisory firm, Robert Charles Lesser & Co., on behalf of ANDP. In the study, researchers looked at the assessed values of homes in the five-county metro core (Clayton, Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb, and Gwinnett counties) versus their fair market value, and how much -- on average -- property owners in those counties overpaid in property taxes, based on the assessed value.

According to the study, residents in the metro area paid an average of $244 more than they should have in property taxes in 2009, while homeowners in 15 zip codes with the highest number of foreclosures (three selected from each county) overpaid by an average of $491.

The study adds that while home owners in those 15 zip codes represent roughly 15 percent of the overall tax digest for the five counties, those home owners paid $82.2 million of the total metro property tax overpayment of $200 million. In other words, the 15 zip codes -- among areas worst hit by the recent foreclosure crisis -- bore 41.1 percent of the metro area's tax overpayment in 2009.

ANDP President and CEO John O'Callaghan said that in Clayton County, in the second half of 2008, homes sold -- on average -- for 48 percent less than the county-assessed value. Despite the county tax assessor lowering values in 87 percent of their assessments from 2008 to 2009, and average values declining by 7 percent, O'Callaghan said the dip "didn't go far enough."

"In Clayton County, values have definitely fallen, and county assessors have not kept up with the drop in values," O'Callaghan said. "If you are taxing a low-income home worth $40,000 at $100,000, that is the same thing as taxing a family that makes $40,000 the same income tax of a family that makes $100,000. That is disturbing to me. In Clayton County, you do have, across the board, that the assessments are not matching the sales prices."

In Clayton County, the zip codes of 30238, 30274, 30296 (which encompass Riverdale, parts Jonesboro, and southwest unincorporated Clayton County) bore 40 percent of the county's total property tax overpayment of $42.4 million in 2009, according to the study.

Clayton County Chief Appraiser Rodney McDaniel said his office, as well as tax appraisers in other counties, are adjusting to "unprecedented real estate issues."

"We were all having to contend with the downturn in the market," McDaniel said. "I think for the most part, we assessed the properties to the best of our abilities, given the circumstances that we were under. We still have to try to maintain fair market value. What has happened here is a number of foreclosures. While we tried to give some consideration, where do you draw the line on how much weight you put on those?"

McDaniel said there will be a number of tax-reform bills up for debate in the General Assembly this legislative session, but said his office is doing its best to "consider transactions [of real estate] based on the current laws out there."

He encouraged anyone who disagrees with their property tax assessment to file a property tax return by April 1, and file an appeal by contacting the Clayton County Tax Assessors' Office.

"We've not run any statistical analysis to determine under-payments or over-payments," McDaniel said. "We are doing everything we can to bring our values in line with the marketplace."

O'Callaghan said that current assessment methods are creating tax disparities in metro Atlanta, particularly in minority areas with high rates of foreclosures. He said county tax assessors need to adopt a "standard methodology" in assessing property values, one that "any citizen" can understand.

"This should be more of a mathematical exercise," O'Callaghan said. "This should be more quantitative, instead of qualitative, and what we are seeing is that it is still qualitative and subjective. We need to get to objective criteria. I don't see that transparency now."